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The Armory as Argument: Cultural Communication Practices and the (Dangerous) Prospects for Civil Discourse about Gun Violence in the U.S.

This 10-page essay by Stephen D. Konieczka, Ph.D, Educator and researcher at the University of Colorado, was written for the University of AZ’s National Institute for Civil Discourse (NICD).  After the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, NICD called for essays to address the challenges of conducting constructive conversations about gun violence in the U.S. As part of their mission, NICD seeks to promote civil discourse on issues of public interest and does not take a policy position on gun violence or gun control but is committed to encouraging a civil discussion.

NICD_logoDr. Konieczka’s work focuses on socio-cultural talk and discourses of democratic governance, participatory politics, and community development. In this essay, Dr. Konieczka addressess the historically consistent causes and consequences of everyday gun violence.

Articulation of the Question
Can the U.S. sustain a reasoned and responsible conversation about the cause and consequences of violence with guns? Below, I examine how early weapons prohibitions in the U.S. responded to concerns that mirror antecedents of contemporary violence with guns; how those constants reflect cultural dispositions towards aggression in American culture and communication practices; and what those facts portended for civil discourse(s) about violence with guns in the U.S. In light of those discussions, the essay concludes by considering opportunities and challenges to fostering, focusing, and facilitating civil discourse(s) about everyday violence with guns.

Closing Recommendations
The first necessary step in any attempt at changing cultural norms leading to violence with guns is to define aggression as a communicative practice, and to offer alternatives ways of interacting with others in difficult/conflict situations. As a form of communication, aggressiveness is a verbal attack on the self-worth of an individual, and is contrasted with argumentativeness, which engages the other’s ideas. A robust body of verbal aggressiveness investigations have reached “the rather unequivocal conclusion that the effects of argumentativeness are constructive and those of verbal aggression are destructive.”

As concepts and practices, argumentativeness and aggressiveness have many articulations with immediate and long term implications for debates and discussions about violence with guns. Normatively, aggressive communication can be demonstrated, observed, and corrected. As an ethic, argumentativeness can be idealized, modeled, and taught as alternative to aggression. Interpretively, argument and aggression can be located among local and global discourses, allowing for understanding of immediate situations/contexts and broader cultural influences.

Having defined communicative aggression and at least one alternative, the second task is to identify contexts where aggressive communication is the norm in everyday interaction. The list of situations where aggressive communication is valued in U.S. culture is perhaps endless; from “trash talk” on the field to slanders outside the women’s health clinic, words that devalue other people are all too common within institutions and systems in which individuals are organized and related. Perhaps the most important contexts in which aggressive communication is today celebrated is the political and/or governmental sphere (including reporting thereof). U.S. politics has never been a civil sport, but over the last 20 years or so, it appears to have increasingly little room for reasoned, responsible, and respectful argument. The media personality Tucker Carlson has best evidenced the perceived value of aggression in U.S. politics, declaring in 2007 that then Senator Obama “sound[ed] like a pothead” when the presidential candidate opined that “we have lost the capacity to recognize ourselves in each other . . . [producing] an empathy deficit.”

Finally, the question arises as to how people might seek to reduce aggressive communication and promote argumentativeness (and other non-violent communication) in U.S. politics, and everyday interactions. Advocates for practices of deliberation, dialogue, and collaboration have long made the case for transforming how people understand themselves and others through reasoned and responsible communication about public issues and policy. Those ideals remain the best available means for cultural change. Research, for example, suggests that with instruction and practice, “policy debating increases argumentativeness and value debating reduces verbal aggression” (Colbert, 1993, p. 213).

Cultural change must start with youth in school, and be a constant theme throughout the curriculum and institutional relations (e.g., student and teacher interactions), but cultivating a less aggressive culture will be impossible if adults do not support such efforts, and model non-aggression in their communication practices with children and each other. With respect to transforming aggressive communication practices among U.S. adults, violence with guns is perhaps the best issue with which to begin the conversation. The danger, however, is that we will continue to talk about marginal gun related issues (e.g., mass shootings and assault weapons) in aggressive ways, and in doing so reproduce cultural norms leading to everyday violence with guns.

Resource Link: https://ncdd.org/rc/wp-content/uploads/Konieczka-ArmoryAsArgument.pdf (download)

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